the political economy of facebook (or, why we hate facebook but keep using it)

i found an amazing article today on the political economy of facebook, myspace and the other usual suspects written by ryan bigge (former adbusters staffer before kalle lasn went apeshit and turned the mag into an antisemitic brand of shoes).

basically, bigge argues that use of social networking sites can actually be seen as unpaid work. in using such facebook et al, we’re essentially producing a stream of self-surveillance that can be monitored, repackaged and sold. for example, taken collectively, we’re voluntarily producing huge databases of our preferences that are a marketers dream (think recommendations on – customers who bought this also liked…) its the darker side of web 2.0’s utopian wisdom of crowds that created wikipedia. but also more broadly, the entire value of facebook is entirely in its users and the networks they’ve created, without any financial compensation. writing in the same vein as bigge, fred scharmen notes that even on flickr, the users are creating all the content that drives visits to the site, which in turn provides the eyeballs that can be sold to advertisers. did you know myspace also claims ownership of its user’s profiles? so even your online identity is commodifiable content.

the big takeaway for me though was the realization that this could be why we all resent facebook, but still use it. we’re aware on some level that something isn’t right, that we’re giving away something we shouldn’t be. but if we opt out and refuse to use facebook, we’re essentially a nobody. as bigge puts it: “In this environment [Facebook et al.], the digital enclosure generates increasingly polarized options: either the constant, self-generated surveillance of the type described by Stites or the self-negation (‘You don’t exist’) that social network avoidance entails.”

bigge also points out the gaming-elements in social networks that make them similar to WoW which i mentioned earlier, and brings this into his analysis of the political economy of social networking:

But digital gardening, like its soil-based equivalent, requires commitment and effort. The
question becomes: are MySpace users at all aware of the political economy of the space in
which they operate? As Kline, et al. (2003) demonstrate, the line between work and play in
the video game arena grows increasingly fuzzy. Wittel (2001), meanwhile, argues that “The
assimilation of work and play corresponds with the blurring of boundaries between work
and private life, between colleagues and friends.”

One can draw parallels between the effort required to invite friends into your MySpace
network and the repetitive work involved in collecting gold in online gaming environments
like EverQuest or World of Warcraft. Cassidy (2006) quotes different Facebook users:
‘I remember people competing to see how many
friends’ they could
accumulate and how quickly, and tracking how many
friends’ they shared in
common with other ‘friends’ [Olivia Ma] said.

Hilary Thorndike, a schoolteacher who graduated from Harvard in 2005 and
still uses Facebook, has more than eight hundred friends on the site. ‚I always
find the competitive spirit in me wanting to up the number, she wrote in an

Williams (2005) underscores this narrative of accumulation:

Seabron Ward, 19, a student at the University of Colorado at Denver, said that many students consider it a status symbol to build a big friend list. “This one guy on my list has a thousand” she said, a bit enviously. “I only have 79.”

so while the gaming element explains why we’re all addicted, the problematic political economy of facebook is what makes us hate it.

  1. forsjá://research » Blog Archive » Daily Linkage 06/29/2011 (p.m.) - June 30, 2011

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